At the time of Confederation, the education system in Newfoundland and in Labrador was in desperate need of improvement. Many teachers were untrained and poorly paid, and schools were often one-room structures that did not have running water or electricity. Illiteracy rates were high and school attendance sporadic – it was not unusual for families to keep their children home because they could not afford suitable clothes, or because a school did not exist within reasonable traveling distance.
One of the Smallwood government's chief ambitions when it assumed office in 1949 was to improve the quality and accessibility of education. Over the following years, the province increased teachers' salaries, opened large and well-equipped regional schools, built roads that made it easier to reach them, and subsidized school textbooks and bus services. The government also improved post-secondary education by opening trade schools and turning Memorial University College into a degree-granting university. The federal government helped education reform by providing financial support to the provincial government and families.
The Education System at Confederation
By North American standards, Newfoundland and Labrador's education system was antiquated and ineffective at the time of Confederation. Of its 1,187 schools, 778 were poorly maintained single-room structures; many had no electricity or running water and were heated by wood or coal stoves. Few schools had libraries, laboratories, gymnasiums, and other facilities common in larger Canadian schools. Teachers were underpaid and usually lacked any kind of formal training – of the 2,357 working in Newfoundland and in Labrador in 1949, only 57 had degrees.
Malnutrition and poverty were common among many children, particularly in rural areas, which made it difficult for students to concentrate on their work or to attend class at all. Although the Commission of Government had made school attendance compulsory in 1943, it did not actively enforce this rule. Many children stayed home on a regular basis because their parents could not afford suitable clothing or supplies. Transportation was another problem. Schools did not exist in all communities and the lack of roads made it difficult for students to reach schools in neighbouring settlements, especially during the winter. Average school attendance in 1948 was only 76 per cent.
Education Reforms After Confederation
The Smallwood government took immediate steps to improve education. It transformed Memorial University College into a degree-granting institution in 1949 and offered grants and scholarships to students entering its teacher-training programs. Attendance at the university steadily increased from 307 in 1949 to 1,234 in 1960. Roughly half of all students were enrolled in the Faculty of Education during the 1950s. The province improved teacher salaries and pension plans in a further effort to attract and retain well-trained educators.
The government also opened a variety of vocational (also known as trade) schools after Confederation to teach adult students job-specific skills. Most institutions accepted students with a minimum education of grade eight or nine. In 1949, a military vocational school in St. John's began accepting civilian students for the first time. The facility taught a wide range of skills, including plumbing, carpentry, diesel engineering, motor mechanics, and navigation.
The school closed in 1963, but was replaced that same year by the College of Trades and Technology in St. John's and 11 district vocational schools at Bell Island, Burin, Carbonear, Clarenville, Corner Brook, Gander, Grand Falls, Lewisporte, Port aux Basques, Seal Cove (Conception Bay), and Stephenville Crossing. Although course offerings varied, most schools taught typing, welding, auto mechanics, drafting, and clerical work. The College of Fisheries, Navigation, Marine Engineering and Electronics also opened at St. John's in 1964 to teach nautical science, naval architecture, and other fisheries-related disciplines. The facility's enrollment expanded from 146 in its first year to more than 3,000 by 1967.
Memorial University also expanded during the Smallwood years. The facility moved from its original Parade Street location to its current campus on Elizabeth Avenue in 1961. Its original four buildings were Arts and Administration, Science and Engineering, Physical Education, and the Library (later renamed the Henrietta Harvey Library). The university offered a wide range of undergraduate and graduate degrees by the end of the decade and had also established schools of medicine, nursing, and engineering.
Changes to the School System
Better public schools opened across the province after Confederation. The government built a series of large and well-equipped regional and central high schools during the 1950s and 1960s to accommodate students from surrounding communities. Regional schools taught grades 9, 10, and 11, while central schools also taught grades seven and eight. All were modern, well-built structures that contained science labs, gymnasiums, libraries, music facilities, and cafeterias. The first regional schools opened at Foxtrap and Corner Brook in 1954 to accept students from Conception Bay and the Bay of Islands, respectively. Eighty-two regional and central high schools existed across the province by 1963, with a total enrollment of approximately 14,620.
The province tried to increase attendance by making it easier for rural students to reach schools in neighbouring communities. It built a network of roads across the island during the 1950s and 1960s and subsidized a school transportation system. By 1963, large yellow busses brought more than 8,700 students to and from class on a daily basis. The government also subsidized school textbooks and introduced a series of bursaries and scholarships to make education more affordable.
Of tremendous financial help to many families, however, was their sudden access to federal social services after Confederation. Canada's pension plans, health benefits, and other programs dramatically improved the quality of living for Newfoundland and Labrador residents. Malnutrition rates decreased and poverty became less prevalent. Parents whose children went to school on a regular basis were eligible to receive family allowances from the federal government. As a result, school attendance rose dramatically and families had more money to spend on school supplies, clothes, and other necessities than ever before.
Despite these reforms, problems persisted. Drop-out rates remained high, reading levels low, and test scores below national averages. Performance was particularly poor in rural areas, where ill-equipped one- and two-room classrooms were still commonplace. In an effort to improve the situation, the Smallwood government appointed a Royal Commission on Education and Youth in 1964 to study the education system and recommend ways to improve it. The Commission presented its two-volume report to the province in 1967 and, in the coming years, its 340 recommendations helped to bring about profound and far-reaching changes to education in Newfoundland and Labrador.